Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 35

Deborah Montgomerie, The women's war: New Zealand women 1939-45, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2001, 203 pp., illustrations, tables, endnotes, index, NZ$39.95

Reviewed by: JANETTE BOMFORD, freelance historian.

In addition to being a fascinating study of the lives of New Zealand women during the Second World War, this book examines one of the major debates in feminist literature regarding women and war: that is, whether war challenges gender stereotypes and, if so, whether this has a long term impact on gender roles. Does the apparent empowerment of women during wartime, based on greater opportunities to extend gender boundaries, result in permanent gains for women? Or do gender roles revert to the traditional forms when the war ends?

Deborah Montgomerie explains that, in the 1970s, the attempts by the feminist movement and social historians to include women in mainstream history were influenced by a progressive model of women's liberation based on women expanding their political, economic and social influence. The Second World War was portrayed as a time when women made significant gains in terms of entry into the public sphere of paid employment. Such interpretations were challenged by revisionist historians who disputed the extent and permanency of the gains women made, and identified ways in which male privilege was protected.

Montgomerie positions herself with the revisionists. Her main argument is that, although the entry of women into non-traditional areas of employment was widely publicised during the war, in fact the numbers involved were small. The period of the war years, and immediately afterwards, was essentially a conservative one in New Zealand, when traditional gender roles were unchallenged. While aiming to convey a sense of women's achievements during the war, Montgomerie argues that examining the continuities in gender relations is as important as cataloguing female "firsts".

Much of the literature on women during the Second World War has focussed on young, usually single women, and addressed their employment and sexuality. Montgomerie's work considers women as mothers, wives and lovers, as well as workers, although the major part of the book focuses on the public sphere of employment. The chapter on women as mothers is particularly interesting and is an area of scholarship that has been neglected and requires further examination.

Here it is argued that new opportunities arose for some women because of the war, but such change was not always welcomed by women or men. It was not paralleled by any reassessment of women's domestic responsibilities, and women's war work did not challenge men's privileges such as higher pay and more responsible employment positions. Rather, women were systematically forced into poorly-paid and unsatisfactory employment in the name of patriotism. Montgomerie also examines cases where women resisted efforts made under manpower regulations to compel them to enter the paid workforce or to transfer to less well-paid or desirable employment.

She argues that mothers in paid employment were not liberated from domesticity. Indeed, New Zealand mothers sought to fit their employment around domestic work, which remained their primary concern. Men also demanded this of women. The most telling example was of a man who worked long hours at the Auckland Gas Company and required his wife to prepare his evening meal at 4.30 p.m. The manpower board recommended the wife be transferred to part-time work to enable her to cook the meal.

Montgomerie draws out the ambiguities for women who were expected to be patriotic without being militaristic, and to contribute to national production while maintaining a harmonious domestic life. Ultimately women were expected to replace, not displace, men.

The women's war is attractively presented on high quality stock, and is well illustrated with a lively selection of contemporary photographs, cartoons, and advertisements which illustrate key ideas. Some readers will find the tiny typeface of the footnotes a challenge, and the growing trend to omit a bibliography is to be decried. In this case, the five blank pages at the end of the book could have been put to better use.

Montgomerie's book is a well-researched, very readable study that extends the debate on women, war and social change. Its arguments are challenging and thought-provoking. It is a significant contribution to the literature on women and war and is highly recommended.